M O V I E   &   D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   G U R E V I C H

Like rock'n'roll, sci-fi will never die. Yes, there's Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, but for the more rational-minded among us, what better place to escape Christmas than Solaris, a space station light years away? Especially when the expedition is produced by James "Titanic" Cameron, directed by Steven "Traffic" Soderbergh, and enacted by George "ER" Clooney. That alone should be enough to fill the multiplexes; but wait, there's more! The film is a remake of a sci-fi classic by the same name made by a late Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky exactly thirty years ago. This is what in Hollywood should be called a mopping-up operation -- sweeping the curious cinephiles stuck in little art theaters and delivering them into same multiplexes. As if on cue, The Criterion Collection is releasing a DVD version of the original Solaris. Coincidence? Try synergy.

(The synergy would be complete if they re-issued the original Stanislaw Lem novel that started the ball rolling and placed it in Barnes & Noble windows. Nah. If anyone at Fox floated the idea, rest assured that the paperback is still resting securely under a pile of scripts.)

The art-film lovers will be moaning Why? Why did Soderbergh have to remake a respectable film? Are we in danger of running out of interesting sci-fi novels yearning to be put on film? The question may be irrelevant insofar as Mr. Soderbergh can easily answer Because I can. And with the Hollywood dream team described above, how can he miss? Turn off the lights and let the magic begin.

So there's this psychologist named Kris Kelvin, and he is clearly distressed. Both Soderbergh and Tarkovsky drench their heroes (Clooney and Donatas Banionis, respectively) in sheets of nonstop rainfall, in case we miss the point. The Earth is not enough to contain Dr. Kelvin's gloom, so he is dispatched to the faraway Solaris, where the observation station is in deep trouble. Strange things are happening there, and only Kelvin can sort them out. (Tarkovsky's buildup is more detailed, and I'll come back to it later.)

Kelvin arrives to find the station in bad shape indeed, with naked wires sending sparks and detritus and even blood all over. What the place needs is a cleaning crew. What's more, one scientist has just committed suicide, another is a nervous wreck, while the third one barricaded himself (herself, in Soderbergh's film) in his/her quarters and would not come out, period. Kelvin has his work cut out for him.

So far, so good. The two directors pursue their own aesthetic routes: as befits a Russian artiste, Tarkovsky opens Chekhovian -- a dacha, a stream, a meadow with no blade of grass unphotographed. In the Year 2002, we cannot help smiling at his use of the footage of a Japanese freeway to stand in for the future, and his scientists wearing suits and ties (And they smoke! The horror! Clooney, by contrast, could be a vegan - much is made of his cucumber-slicing), which makes the conference in the opening scenes look like the Royal Geographic Society circa 1899 discussing Professor Challenger's report of the Lost World. By contrast, Soderbergh goes for modern pizzazz, numbing us with hi-tech imagery. Whether the credit should go to Soderbergh himself or thirty years of technological development, his film is more of our time in purely visual terms (Soderbergh's researchers wear hip black T-shirts; Tarkovsky's, leather jackets that make them look like Russian gangsters), and thus succeeds well in creating credible suspense. We are genuinely mystified: what the heck happened -- and is happening -- at the station?

It turns out that the station is haunted. But the phantoms are not playful Caspers or bloodthirsty Jasons: they are figures from our pasts. They are long dead; they're someones we would rather not remember. They are our individual guilts in flesh-and-blood (or so they seem until the blood tests). Who wouldn't go bananas at something like that?

It is at this junction that the two film concepts part company. Tarkovsky reveals the source of mayhem early on (in the novel, Lem does so on page one): the occupants of Solaris are occupied by an ocean of plasma, and scientists have long hypothesized that this Ocean is in fact one huge organism that defies the earthlings' understanding. Tarkovsky's scientists are on Solaris to attempt Contact; Soderbergh's who knows? To drill for oil? Soderbergh must have reasoned that his target audiences don't want to know about the Ocean -- that they'll settle happily for endless (very pretty) visuals of whirls and eddies that are presumably intended to create a metaphysical angst on par with the darkness of the Atlantic in The Titanic. So what do these audiences want, as per Soderbergh and Cameron? You've got it -- a love story.

Sure enough, there's a marriage that ended tragically in Clooney's past (why else would he be so miserable in the opening?), and now his late wife Rheya (what's with the spelling? Greek Gods don't sue, do they?) shows up, played by an unbearably beautiful Natascha McElhone (Ronin and The Truman Show). Even her cheeks seem to have implants. Is she for real, or is she an attractively shaped blob of energy? We'll get to know the answer, but it comes with a twist: we shouldn't care. We never learn Rheya's raison d'etre; nor should we, Soderbergh seems to say: two people (er, organisms) are in love. Thou shalt not ask why, ok? The important thing is for Kelvin to repair his past. To do the right thing. (For the sake of those who stayed with me so far, I won't give away the precise way in which Kelvin puts his life back together.)

To be fair to Soderbergh, he doesn't entirely ignore the idea of personal vs. social. At one point Dr. Gordon, played with cold clinical fervor by Viola Davis, lays down an ultimatum: Get rid of your creature. "I'm not bringing this thing to Earth."

Thing? You talkin' about my woman here, bitch! If Dr. Gordon was played by a male actor, rest assured Clooney would go for a one-two punch in this scene.

Nor does Tarkovsky ignore the love story. His ideas of what women wear in the Year 2500 will make the downtown crowd cringe, but Kelvin and Khari (played by Natalya Bondarchuk, who looks as vulnerable as Natascha McElhone looks healthy) are every bit as tragic as Kelvin and Rheya. Yet Tarkovsky always has a bigger fish to fry; his characters keep asking the nagging questions: What does the Ocean want? And, more importantly, what do we want from the Ocean? The staging of these debates is somewhat stilted, with characters musing with wine goblets in their hands and perusing dusty old tomes for information; but the important thing is that they do ask questions that have no clear-cut answers.

Producer James Cameron knows how to provide clear-cut answers. For example, in Aliens: "Let's go into orbit and nuke 'em!" (He was also politically astute in making his protagonist a woman, while giving her dialogue that would not have been out of place in Rambo). Here it's pretty clear-cut, too. To reverse a line from an even greater classic, the problems of these little people DO amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. That's right: omnia vincit amor, including trans-species sex and marriage. What an uplifting, inspirational notion. But, uh, did we really have to go all the way to Solaris for it? Nowadays, when public enthusiasm for space travel has somewhat ebbed, why couldn't Rheya show up in Marin County? Doesn't The Ocean (not mentioned in Soderbergh's version anyway) deliver?

Oddly enough, Tarkovsky's Kelvin is not really yearning to travel to Solaris: Vadim Yusov's camera loves and caresses the modest, unassuming beauty of the Russian countryside, a striking contrast with the techno-gloom of the station. Yet Tarkovsky would be most likely turned off by Soderbergh's version. (Lem, who was not fond of Tarkovsky's film, is apt to be horrified by Soderbergh's even more.) Almost prophetically, one of Tarkovsky's characters remarks: "Don't turn a science experiment into a bedroom farce."

So what? A modern-day multiplex-goer who wishes to ignore the context that I, perhaps excessively, unloaded above, might find Soderbergh's not a bad movie. Although the dialogue in crucial scenes is rather flabby, the visuals are stunning, the actors uniformly good-looking, and the ending -- well, you're on a date, aren't you? In other words, this is a movie for our times. Tarkovsky's version is distinctly old-fashioned, from its chain-smoking scientists to its serious approach to science and its concept of space exploration as a collective adventure in spirit -- for better or for worse -- rather than an extended group-analysis session (yes, Kelvin conducts one in an opening scene). The concept of the Me Generation, formulated in the '70s, is alive and well in America, but in the USSR in 1972 it was as alien a notion as that of an ocean made of plasma. Man used to dream of flying to faraway places to make contact with ocean-sized creatures; now he just wants to get back with his old lady.

Steven Soderbergh's Solaris

[rating: 2.5 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: Twentieth Century Fox
Movie Web site: Solaris



Photo credits: © 2002 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.
& © 1972 Mosfilm. All rights reserved.